Do tattoos cause skin cancer?

September 13, 2017 | by Lucio Pavone, M.D.

When you decide you want a tattoo, you have a lot more to think about than the type of design you want and where to get it placed. You should also think about whether your tattoo will affect your health.

Although there has been concern about tattoos leading to the development of skin cancer, studies have failed to show a connection. If you do decide to get a tattoo, doctors recommend you choose the area you want to ink wisely.

Covering up a mole or birthmark with a tattoo can make it more difficult to detect the development of skin cancer, like melanoma. People with thick, blackout-like tattoos are most at risk for undiagnosed melanoma.

When a 29-year-old man from Germany decided to get the tattoo on his chest and arms removed, he discovered he had a cancerous mole hidden beneath the colorful designs. It was only discovered while he was getting his tattoo removed. 

This isn’t an isolated incident either. German researchers also found reports of 16 other cases of tattoos covering up skin cancer.

If you are thinking about getting a tattoo, have your doctor check the area to make sure it is free of moles or birthmarks. You should also consider:

  • Whether the shop is clean and if the equipment is properly sterilized
  • The chemicals used in the tattoo ink (steer clear of colors derived from heavy metals)
  • What kinds of reactions may happen after you get a tattoo (watch for an infection)

After you have gotten a tattoo, pay close attention to freckles, moles and areas of the skin frequently exposed to sunlight. If you notice your mole has one more of the following ABCDE features, consult your doctor: 

  • Asymmetry —  One side of the mole looks different from the other
  • Border irregularity — An edge of the mole is ragged or uneven
  • Color variations — There is an uneven mixture of brown, black, tan or red
  • Diameter — The mole is bigger than quarter of an inch (6 millimeters)
  • Evolution — The mole evolves, or changes over time (a change in size or shape)

Tattoos are a unique form of self-expression. Educating yourself beforehand about the risks can help you avoid health problems down the line, or prevent you from getting a tattoo you may later regret.

Learn more about cancer services at Edward-Elmhurst Health. 


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